Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Second Best Place For This One To Be

At the Ohio Show, Rob Bader did not disappoint. Early Sunday morning, he walked up to me with that familiar cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on his face. But this time, he wasn’t holding a pencil.

"There’s a rare pencil here today," he said, "and you don’t have it. The person selling it knows what it’s worth, but you should buy it."

Now that’s confidence, I’m thinking to myself. But since Rob hasn’t yet steered me wrong, all I said was "lead the way." And Rob did.

Tucked away in the back corner of the hallway, a few tables down from mine, was a vendor with a tragic story. Texas collector Stan Pfeiffer, who co-founded the Houston Pen Show and was one of the organizers of the L.A. Pen Show for a number of years, was killed in a fire at his home in Houston last summer, and the fire also damaged much of his pen collection. Stan’s longtime companion, Ginger Welch, brought some things from Stan’s collection to the Ohio Show to start liquidating them.

The things that she brought were really something to see – red hard rubber overlay pens and plenty of other fantastic fare like that. But a lot of what was there had some kind of damage, and all of it still smelled like a fire.

There wasn’t room enough in the display case on top of her table to accommodate everything she brought during the first couple of days, but as things sold, she would pull items from underneath the table and fill in the gaps. I hadn’t paid much attention to her display – not because it wasn’t spectacular, but because when I looked at her table earlier in the show it didn’t look like she had any pencils in the mix that interested me.

But Rob Bader was keeping a close eye on what was emerging from under her table to fill in the gaps, and he took notice when this one emerged early in the day on Sunday:

This is the ultra-rare Parker streamline pencil specially made for the Zaner-Bloser Company of Columbus, Ohio, using Zaner’s patented hobbleskirt shape.  There’s no Parker imprint on the lower barrel, for obvious reasons, although the pencil is marked "Parker" on one of the company’s typical depression-period washer clips:

and the pencil has a unique imprint on the upper barrel:

I’ve been looking for one of these for years. The example pictured on page 174 of The Catalogue belongs to Joe Nemecek, and I’ve always thought that as a proud native, my collection should include the single most valuable pencil from my home town.

This example wasn’t damaged in the fire, although it could use a cleaning and the hard rubber top piece, which is more sensitive to heat, may have been slightly affected.  It sat in a three-slot box alongside a typical Parker Duofold Jr. Pen and pencil set, also in true blue, and according to Ginger’s helper (who didn’t know anything about pens or pencils and was just there to help out), he thought Ginger was trying to sell the three as a "set." If I wanted to make an offer on just the pencil, he explained, I’d just have to wait until she got back from her smoke break.

So I did what any otherwise sane person would do. I held the Parker tightly in my hand, found a chair nearby to sit down right there, and I waited until Ginger got back. There was no way I was going to let this one out of my hands or sight for even one second!

When Ginger got back, she told me the price for the set of three but readily admitted that she’d been told that the Zaner was probably a separate piece. And when I asked her how much she wanted for the pencil by itself, she gave me the answer I always dread: "What would you offer?"

Now Ginger is a smart woman. She’s been doing her homework on pens, but she was not the pen collector of the house and Rob Bader said she knew what this one was worth. So what should I say? I wouldn’t offer a lowball figure anyway, but I had no idea what she thought it was worth so I had no idea what she would think was a "lowball" offer. And if she thought my offer was too low, I might miss my only chance.

My mind scrambled for a figure, and after some stammering around, I suggested $450.00. There was a long pause, and I explained that I thought she could easily get the rest of what she was asking for the three pieces out of the other two. There was another pause . . . and she agreed.

I paid her and we chatted a bit more. I told her that I’d written The Catalogue and how long I’d been looking for this pencil. She asked if she could see the book, so I went back to my table to get a copy.

But as I sat down next to her with The Catalogue in hand, I had a momentary flash of panic. I knew that logically, the first thing I would do is to open the book to page 174 and show her the picture of Joe’s example of this same pencil. But while I couldn’t remember what price I’d listed for the Zaner-Bloser Parker, I did remember one thing: that the price I listed for this pencil was more than what I thought it was worth.

The only sale of a Zaner-Bloser Parker that I’d ever heard of was the sale of Joe’s example to Joe, several years earlier at the Chicago show. I wasn’t present, but Joe told me the story of how he had placed an absentee bid on his pencil at the Chicago auction, back when Michael Fultz was running it.  According to Joe, the bidding did not meet the reserve, but since Joe was the high bidder, he was offered the pencil at the reserve price of $800.  Joe bought it without hesitation, because he really, really wanted one.

So as I opened up my book to page 174, I was worried that my book might make it appear as if I had lowballed my new friend after all. I decided to take my lumps and showed her the page, where I was relieved to see that I’d reported the price as "$500 and up." That’s perfectly accurate, since $500 is what I thought that the pencil was probably worth, and the "and up" is what Joe actually paid just because he wanted one that badly and it was a little better condition than this one.

I told Ginger the story of Joe’s pencil and how I arrived at the price I’d listed, and I explained that I wasn’t going to resell the pencil. I knew I was overexplaining myself. But I didn’t want her to feel like I was taking advantage of her, and fortunately, she didn’t. Whew. And to top it off, Ginger liked the book so much that she ended up buying a copy and we parted friends.

Of course, as we all mill around the same room for four days at the Ohio Show, that wasn’t the last time I saw Ginger that weekend. Towards the end of the day, I saw her and made a point to tell her – again – how happy I was to have acquired this pencil. She smiled. "I’m glad it’s where it belongs," she said.

I knew she wasn’t complimenting me on being a super-duper collector to whom a super-duper piece like this should belong. Stan Pfeiffer had owned and enjoyed this pencil, and he preserved it to the best of his ability so that when he was gone, it could be passed on to others for them to enjoy. None of us really "own" these things – we are just the current caretakers and custodians of them, who preserve and keep them so that future generations will likewise get to enjoy them, as well.

Sure, the money is important, but I’m sure the relatively small amount I spent on this pencil was nothing compared to what a lot of the other items she brought had sold for. Besides, if all Ginger wanted to do was to liquidate, she could have just run everything through an auction somewhere, but she didn’t. Ginger came to Ohio to interview successor custodians to take over caring for the things Stan was looking after while he was alive.

I’m glad I got the job to care for this one.


Fr. Joseph Lody said...

So long after having written your post I come across it as I am playing on the internet. I am so glad I did. While I am nothing more than a fledgeling collector of pencils, I did notice the tenderness and reverence in your post; and I truly appreciate and understand it.

Thank you.

Jon Veley said...

I appreciate it, Father. Sometimes no matter how nice a pencil is, the object isn't the real story.